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What is gaslighting? Definition, examples, and advice on dealing with it

Telling you what you can and can’t wear, asking you not to see that one friend, and blaming you when they get in a rage … Sound familiar? This might seem like normal relationship behavior, but could it also be gaslighting? A Flo expert explains everything you need to know. 
 

what is gaslighting

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies or reality TV, you’ll likely know the feeling of desperately wanting your favorite character to realize they’re being manipulated by their partner. We’ve all thought it: Girl, listen to your best friend and dump them already

Spotting the signs of emotional and mental abuse, of which gaslighting is one kind, can be easy when they’re clearly laid out for us on screen. But they may not be as obvious when they crop up in real-life situations. You might not know what the definition of gaslighting is.

Susan Masterson, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and Flo board member, Kentucky, US, explains the key thing to remember about what gaslighting means: “If you detect a pattern from someone who keeps making you feel like you’re ‘wrong’ about things you know to be true, you are probably being gaslit.”

But gaslighting behavior isn’t always so clear-cut, making it pretty tough to spot at times. So what is the definition of gaslighting, and is it a bit more serious than social media sometimes makes it out to be? 

What is gaslighting? 

While you might have first heard the term on TikTok, the phrase “gaslighting” has actually been around since the mid-20th century — all thanks to a movie. Released in the United States in 1944 — with an earlier British version put out in 1940 — the film Gaslight follows a young woman whose husband manipulates her into madness. 

“In the movie, the husband did a number of things to convince his wife she was ‘insane’ so he could have her committed to a mental institution and keep her late aunt’s riches,” explains Masterson. “It’s used today to describe the process when someone says and does things to make you think what you know to be true is ‘in your head’ or that things are your fault when they are, in fact, not.”

And while gaslighting in popular culture usually follows the same formula and appears between characters who are dating, Masterson says it can happen in any situation. 

“Gaslighting can happen in any type of relationship — be it with a partner, a friendship, or in a family setting — where someone wants to put the other person in a position of relative weakness to keep them around or to control the dynamic,” she explains.

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Typical behavior and signs of gaslighting

The difficult thing about gaslighting is that it can range from incredibly subtle behaviors (like convincing you that something didn’t happen when it did) to more obvious incidents. Masterson says there isn’t a checklist of “typical” signs, but there are some examples you might look out for. 

Gaslighting examples

  • You might disagree with someone about a previous conversation. You’re sure that they said something, but they’ve changed their story now that they know they’re in the wrong. This is gaslighting if the person is making you believe that your memory is wrong in order to manipulate or isolate you. 
  • During a heated discussion, someone tells you that your coworkers, friends, or family don’t like you as much as you think they do. If they do this in an attempt to isolate you, then it can be considered gaslighting. They may even disguise it as telling you that it’s “for your own good.”
  • The person you’re dating touches you in a way that’s too rough or inappropriate. You protest and ask them not to do it again, and they tell you to stop overreacting and to lighten up.
  • A friend makes a joke at your expense. You ask them not to treat you like that, and they tell you that it was only a joke, and they weren’t even talking about you. 
  • A partner, friend, or family member is physically aggressive toward you. When you push them away, they blame you for making them mad or jealous enough to do it. They make you feel responsible for their feelings and behavior.  

Gaslighting is just one way that someone may try to control you. And it can often be used to justify other behavior, such as physical harm, financial manipulation, or digital abuse. 

For example, someone might make you feel like your feelings aren’t a priority or that they’re silly. They might make you feel like you can’t do anything right or that you shouldn’t see certain people. This is emotional abuse and is linked to gaslighting. 

Alternatively, you might feel like you’re being controlled through your finances once you start earning your own money. This could be in the form of being given an allowance, not being allowed to make certain purchases without asking permission, or having your paycheck deposited into someone else's account so you can’t access it. 

Digital abuse is where someone might tell you who you can and can’t follow or speak with on social media. It also includes someone using online or GPS technology to track your activities.

Commonly asked questions about gaslighting

So, it’s pretty clear that gaslighting can look very different in each situation. But you might still be left with questions. Can someone gaslight you without them realizing it? If they say they didn’t know they were upsetting you, then is it still wrong? And can gaslighting be considered as serious as abuse? 

Put simply, yes. And Masterson explains how below.

Is unconscious gaslighting real?

If someone is manipulating you, then it sounds calculated, right? Masterson explains it isn’t always as simple as that. 

Unconscious, or unintentional, gaslighting is when a person shows gaslighting behavior, often for their own gain, but doesn’t realize that they are doing it. This might mean they make you feel guilty for doing something without them or saying that you shouldn’t feel upset about something that they’ve said or done. 

While they might not always recognize what they’re doing is wrong or hurtful, it doesn’t mean it’s OK. We know it can be difficult, but try to explain to them how their behavior is harming you. Outline that while they might not see it, the way they’re making you feel isn’t right and is really affecting you. Below, Masterson explains a few other things you can do if you think you’re being gaslit. 

Is gaslighting a form of manipulation?

Masterson says, “Yes, gaslighting can be defined as a form of manipulation.” You might not think that gaslighting is a big deal or that it isn’t as serious as manipulation, but they’re the same thing and never acceptable.

And is gaslighting considered abuse?

Abuse may sound like a loaded term, but gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. So what does that really mean?  

UK-based nonprofit SafeLives explains that psychological abuse can include: 

  • When someone regularly and intentionally uses their words and actions to scare or upset you
  • When someone tries to control your actions or confuse you into not knowing what the truth is anymore
  • When someone tries to break your confidence and change the way you see yourself by speaking down to you or humiliating you 

Being given the silent treatment during arguments, feeling like you can’t hang out with certain friends or family members, being made to feel responsible for your partner’s emotions and reactions, and being made to doubt your own memories and beliefs also all fall into this.

It can be really jarring to attach the term “abuse” to your relationship. Many of us think it’ll never happen to us, but you’re never alone. Try to reach out to someone you trust and explain what you’re going through. This might be as simple as running through some examples of their behavior and how it made you feel. 

gaslighting examples

Gaslighting in pop culture 

Now that you know what gaslighting means, you’ll probably be able to pick out lots of examples in movies and TV. 

Films like The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt, or Elizabeth Moss’s 2020 thriller The Invisible Man all highlight gaslighting behavior from male partners. In the TV series Homeland, the main character, played by Claire Danes, experiences psychological manipulation. 

Dramatizations of real-life stories, like the 2018 Netflix series Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, also show examples of gaslighting.

And while it might not be spoken about as much, former child star Jeanette McCurdy opened up about the gaslighting behavior she experienced from her mother Debra in her memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died, which was released in early 2022. 

Seeing other people go through something similar to you may feel comforting. It’s one thing to read that you’re not alone and another to see it in action. It might even help you recognize gaslighting. A previous situation might have felt bad, but you’re not sure why. Seeing it played out on screen could confirm that your gut feeling was right and that you don’t have to put up with manipulation. 

At the same time, if you find it difficult to watch or read about gaslighting because it feels too real or too close to your situation, then prioritize yourself and stay away from it. Remember that your safety and peace are the number one priority, and you know how best to heal and protect yourself.   

Are there any long-term gaslighting effects?

Telling someone to walk away from their gaslighter feels like an easy solution, right? But being continually told that you’re wrong or should feel bad can have very real, lasting effects on you. 

You might have totally lost trust in your own judgment after being gaslit. “Being unable to trust what you saw with your own eyes, heard with your own ears, and trust your instincts is damaging to your self-concept and can set you up for a pattern of repeating relationships with people who treat you this way,” Masterson says. “If you’re hearing it again from a new partner, you begin to think that it must be true, which is absolutely not the case.” 

Gaslighting has been linked to a number of mental health conditions, including:

What to do if you think you’ve experienced gaslighting

If you think you may have experienced or be experiencing gaslighting, dealing with the after-effects may seem a little daunting. However, it’s so important to remember that you’re not alone, and this absolutely isn’t your fault. 

“If you’re in this situation, it’s worth distancing yourself from this person,” Masterson says. “Trying to change how they treat you will not work.” 

The person who is gaslighting you may be really ingrained in your life. They could be at school or home, for example, and it might feel tricky to work out how to get that distance. But you aren't isolated, and there are people out there who are able to help. Reach out to someone you trust. This might be a friend, teacher, or parent. Talk to the person who feels safest to you.  

It could be a really great idea to start gathering evidence and building a case for yourself. That way, you’re less likely to doubt yourself that there’s gaslighting going on. Note down every time they do something that makes you second-guess yourself. Keep messages and pictures as proof. This might make it easier to remember individual incidents later. 

If you share a home, workspace, or school with the person causing you distress, the most important thing to consider is your safety. If you’re worried about their behavior, then remember to erase your internet search history and keep any notes you’re taking in a secure place. Give them to someone you trust or send them on and then delete them from your phone. And know that you don’t have to suffer through this alone. 

And at any point, you can reach out to nonprofits or support groups for help. “In the United States, the number to call is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233),” says Masterson. If you feel like you’re in danger or need help right away, then call 911 or your emergency services number (999 in the United Kingdom and 000 in Australia).

In the United Kingdom, the nonprofits Women’s Aid and Refuge support people who have experienced abuse in all its forms. You can call Refuge’s free hotline at ​​0808 2000 247. If you’re based in Australia, Mission Australia and RizeUp Australia may be able to give you more information and support.

What is gaslighting? The takeaway 

Gaslighting is when someone says or does things that make you question what you know to be true. You might be made to believe that your memory is wrong or you’re overreacting to someone else’s actions.

While you might have heard friends joke about being gaslit, it’s actually a form of psychological abuse, and friends, the person you’re dating, and even family members can present behavior that would be considered gaslighting. 

If you think you might be going through this, then it can feel incredibly isolating, but know you’re not alone and aren’t overreacting. Trust your gut and reach out to an adult that you trust.

Written by Sophie Cockerham

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